Michael Palin on HMS Erebus and the doomed Franklin Expedition of 1845

In this extended interview with BBC History Magazine, Michael Palin talks to Ellie Cawthorne about the HMS Erebus, a ship that caused a national sensation after its mysterious Arctic disappearance in 1845…

A 19th-century depiction of HMS Erebus in the ice, by François Etienne Musin. What exactly happened to the ship and its crew remains a mystery. (Picture by Alamy)

Launched in 1826, the Royal Navy ship HMS Erebus was made famous by two major polar expeditions. From 1839-43 it undertook an Antarctic voyage captained by James Clark Ross. In 1845, with HMS Terror, the ship embarked on the Franklin Expedition to find the North-West Passage. What exactly transpired on the Arctic voyage remains a mystery, but both ships were abandoned and all 129 crewmembers died. In 2014, the sunken wreck of Erebus was finally rediscovered.

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What first sparked your imagination about HMS Erebus?

It all started when I was researching the botanist Joseph Hooker. I thought he was a bespectacled and bearded scientist behind a desk. But then I discovered that at the age of 22, Hooker had joined a scientific voyage to the Antarctic on a ship called HMS Erebus. That journey had lasted three long years and had involved three separate forays into the unknown. I didn’t expect that! So I looked into it, and eventually Erebus became more interesting to me than Hooker himself, especially when I found out that it was the very same ship that had carried Sir John Franklin to the North-West Passage on what became the greatest disaster in British polar history.

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The ninth-century Alfred Jewel, adorned with the inscription: "Alfred ordered me to be made". This masterpiece of Anglo-Saxon art is thought to have been an aestel, a pointer used to follow text. (Picture by Alamy)

What were the challenges of polar exploration at this time?

Danger was inherent in any voyage in the ice. There hadn’t been a lot of Antarctic voyages, so nobody knew quite what they were going to find. Cook had dropped in, and the whalers had been there, but a lot of polar journeys had been quite difficult and dangerous. There were a lot of instances of boats having to be abandoned, or being crushed in the ice.

During my own Arctic and Antarctic journeys, I was struck by just how vast polar landscapes are and how colossal the scenery is. These enormous empty landscapes must have been quite terrifying for the crew at times. On Ross’s Antarctic voyage, Erebus came up against a 200 feet-high ice wall (later termed the Ross Ice Shelf). I’ve seen icebergs on that scale, but it’s always been from the comparative comfort of a ship that has an engine and can move out of the way. Erebus only had a very small auxiliary engine, so the crew had to rely solely on their sailing skills. If they got stuck in ice, it was incredibly difficult to get out.

A further challenge was living and operating at freezing temperatures – being able to furl and unfurl sails in -10 degrees and gale force winds is no mean feat. Health on board was another issue: the crews were away for a long time in places where it was impossible to live off the land, and had to live in claustrophobically close quarters. Erebus was designed as a three-masted bomb ship – it was quite small (about 104ft long). Basically it wasn’t fast, but it was strong and sturdy. Ionce travelled round Cape Horn on a Chilean navy vessel with 30 men on board, and we were terribly cramped. I realise now that that ship was bigger than Erebus, which had 67 crewmembers. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like being packed so closely together for such a long period of time.

Michael Palin, whose latest book chronicles the 19th-century polar voyages of HMS Erebus. "My ultimate dream is to scuba-dive in Erebus's wreck," he says. (Photo by VALERY HACHE/AFP/Getty Images)
Michael Palin, whose latest book chronicles the 19th-century polar voyages of HMS Erebus. “My ultimate dream is to scuba-dive in Erebus’s wreck,” he says. (Photo by VALERY HACHE/AFP/Getty Images)

Despite all this, the men on board Erebus didn’t actually talk about the dangers and difficulties that much – they simply saw them as challenges that would be overcome. They believed that they had the knowledge, the ships, and the almighty in heaven on their side. Failure was not an option. Nowhere in the documents and letters did I find evidence of great fear. There was apprehension and concern, but the crews dealt with it by larking about. Although life on board was tough, they would have a party at any excuse. Whenever possible there were jokes – humour must have kept them going while they were sailing into the unknown.

What sources did you use to reconstruct what life was like on board?

A lot of the documents relating to the voyages were journals kept by officers, which had to be returned to the Admiralty at the end of each voyage. While the officers had to be careful what they said in these reports, letters sent to the families of those board weren’t censored.

These uncensored personal letters were gold dust to me, as they reveal the informal moments on board. They really added the sparkle to the book. My favourite were the letters of John Davis, second master of Terror –one amazing letter of his runs to around 20 pages and covers the whole of one Antarctic voyage, complete with paintings. Davis reports that while stuck in the ice on New Year’s Day, the crew made a makeshift pub out on the ice and carved an ice sculpture of the Venus de Milo. He also includes a terrific account of the collision of the ships while they were trying to squeeze through ice. It was in the middle of the night, and Davis was lying in the sick bay when he heard shouts for everybody to come up on deck. When he got there, he found the crew running about in panic half-naked, or still in their nightshirts. It’s a wonderful little glimpse of what life on board was really like, which you wouldn’t find in the official reports.

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What motivated people to go on these dangerous polar voyages?

During the 19th-century, the Navy was a huge employer, and it could offer quite a good life. People would join the Navy at the age of 10 or 11 – it would be your schooling really. After the Napoleonic wars, there was no need to press-gang crews anymore, so the Navy was able to recruit volunteers and pay them reasonably well. You could even be paid double rate for going to the polar regions. It was a great period for exploration – these weren’t military or commercial expeditions, they were simply intended to gather as much information as possible about parts of the world as yet unknown.

Tell us about the two captains who helmed Erebus on its polar voyages.

First up was James Clark Ross, who hailed from a family of Scottish mariners and captained Erebus on a four-year trip to the Antarctic. From what we can gather, Ross was quite a vain man. He had this fantastic thatch of hair, and was called the handsomest man in the navy. But his journal is fairly stiff – there’s not a lot of emotion or imagination there. He possibly took himself a little seriously, but was clearly an excellent navigator and captain. He managed to extricate Terror and Erebus from a terrifying collision in the Antarctic, which I think shows just how skilful he was.

John Franklin, on the other hand, was a very affable, clubbable character who was liked by everyone. People were anxious to describe their feelings for Franklin; they enjoyed being on his ship and thought he was a good man.

What do you think went wrong on the Franklin expedition?

There really is hardly any evidence of what happened, apart from a note left on Victory Point [on King William Island] which, if anything, ramps up the mystery. It was a single sheet of paper saying that everything was fine. But then a year later someone had returned to Victory Point and scribbled around the note’s margin saying that Franklin and 24 others were dead, they’d had to abandon the ships, and were heading off south. It’s a tantalising glimpse of what might have happened, but nothing more than that.

A whole range of theories have been proposed as to what happened to Franklin’s men. People claimed that the local Inuit must have killed them, or that the crew had been stricken by scurvy. Lead poisoning [from food tins contaminated by lead solder] was once thought to be the key reason why everything went wrong, but that theory has now been widely dismissed.

It’s not a very glamorous theory, but ultimately, I believe that Franklin’s men were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. I think that the single most important fact is that they chose to make their voyage to the North-West Passage during one of the coldest periods in modern history. From around 1845 to 1848, the ice in that region didn’t melt even over summer, meaning that they were unable to free the ships. That was the primary problem, and it couldn’t have been foreseen.

Having said that, there was a great deal of optimism on board which may have led to complacency, meaning that the crew weren’t very keen on taking precautions. They failed to build any cairns along the way, left no details of where they’d gone, and didn’t drop any food stores. That was a big mistake.

1845:  The ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror used in Sir John Franklin's ill-fated attempt to discover the Northwest passage. Original Publication: Illustrated London News pub 24th May 1845  (Photo by Illustrated London News/Getty Images)

What was the reaction back home?

When it became clear that something had gone wrong with the expedition, there were a huge number of searches for the crew. Around nine years after they had departed, an explorer named Dr John Rae uncovered evidence from local Inuit that the crew had died of starvation and some had eaten their comrades in order to stay alive. The initial reaction to this news back home was denial – the shock and horror of British naval officers being accused of cannibalism caused a press sensation, and public outrage. Charles Dickens, for example, was incensed, and wrote very angrily about the revelations.

As more evidence emerged, the next stage was national mourning. People wanted to believe that these men had sacrificed their lives for a worthy cause, something that reflected well on their country. John Everett Millais’s 1874 painting The North-West Passage encapsulates this later national sentiment about the expedition. It shows an old ship’s captain with a map of the arctic laid out on his lap, and his daughter leaning against his knee, as he looks out into the distance – there’s a real sense of desolation to it. Funnily enough, I don’t think anyone really got to grips with the question of whether or not Franklin’s men should have gone in the first place. It became such a huge national calamity that it would have been blasphemous to suggest that they shouldn’t have attempted it. I think that the British have a rather peculiar attitude to noble failures – such as Scott’s doomed mission to the south pole, or all those who died in the trenches – where grief and glory are strangely tied together.

Franklin’s wife, Jane, was especially keen to ensure that her husband was remembered as a great leader. She claimed that the crew had in fact achieved their goal of discovering the North-West Passage and had died as heroes.

Jane Franklin is one of the book’s most fascinating figures – what can you tell us about her?

She was a very modern woman – bright and well-educated, with an enormous amount of energy. Jane was fascinated by the latest developments in science, literature and art, but because she was a woman, she had to achieve a lot through her husband. That’s very much the key to her role in this whole story. She was constantly campaigning for John to get better jobs and positions, or fighting for his reputation. When the task of leading the North-West Passage expedition came along, James Clark Ross was the obvious choice for captain. But Jane pushed her husband as a candidate. Fascinatingly, she was one of the first people to suspect that something might have gone wrong on the expedition, and I think she felt responsible for putting him up for this expedition – he was old, perhaps too old. But Jane had got such a body of support behind him that she felt responsible for sending him up there. So then she put all her energy, and a huge amount of her personal money, into the search for him. That would seem to suggest she was trying to make up for some guilt. In the end she had statues erected to him, making sure he was remembered as a saint and that no one said a bad word about him. What a woman! She had such force.

Can you tell us about the mission to find Erebus’s wreck?

Strangely, it partly sprung from politics. In the late 20th century, the Canadians wanted to underline their sovereignty of a very remote area of the arctic – the same area that Franklin’s men vanished. So they were very keen to find out about the history of the area and put a lot of money into doing so. And that’s what really stimulated the last wave of expeditions in the last ten years or so. The British signed a treaty virtually handing over ownership of the ship to Canada, which the Canadians took very seriously. Suddenly there was a huge amount of energy and resources directed towards finding the wrecks, but it wasn’t until 2014 that they found Erebus. Another two years later, Terror was found in a place called in Terror Bay (which possibly suggests they could have been looking there earlier!).

However, all the evidence shows that the Inuit, despite having only oral testimony, actually pinpointed where the ships went down maybe 100 years before they were found, but people simply didn’t take non-written Inuit testimony seriously enough to listen.

Why are people still so fascinated by the Franklin expedition?

Because of the scale of the tragedy and the huge loss of life. Ross’s Antarctic voyage was a huge success, but no one is particularly interested in that. The Franklin expedition meanwhile was the greatest disaster in polar exploration, and people are completely compelled by it. The mystery is very much part of the allure as well.

Now the ships have been discovered, there’s quite considerable hope that some evidence of what happened might be found, so the story has been taken to another level. So many people have a sort of compulsion to find out the truth, butas yet, no one knows the absolute answer, so the obsession can go on and on.

You retraced Franklin’s route in the North-West Passage – how was that?

I went in the summer, on an expedition with around 90 people on board. Even during the most hospitable time of year it was formidable, so I can’t imagine what it must have been like in the winter months. A lot of the islands that feature in the Franklin story weren’t covered in snow when I visited – they were just great hunking slabs of brown table land. First of all, we landed on Beechy Island to visit the graves of the first three crewmembers who died, when Erebus was only a few months out of London. After all the research I’d done for the book, I’d come to feel like I knew those involved, so it was very moving to be there at the place it all began to unravel. Then we headed towards where the ships are wrecked, but couldn’t get any closer than the Victoria Strait, which is a very narrow channel that ice gets wedged solid in – it’s a bit like being in a blocked plughole. Of course, it was disappointing not to make it to the wreck site, but since the ice that scuppered us was the same heavy ice that trapped Franklin, we learnt something by default.

My ultimate dream is to scuba-dive in Erebus’s wreck. But if I did get down there I think I’d be a bit overwhelmed. I’d probably just be in tears the whole time, if it’s possible to cry underwater.

As well as writing and starring in numerous TV programmes and films, including Monty Python, Michael Palin has authored several travel journals, novels and diaries. His BBC travel documentaries have taken him across the globe, including trips to the North and South Poles, and he is a former president of the Royal Geographical Society. Erebus: The Story of a Ship by Michael Palin (Hutchinson, 352 pages, £20) is available now.

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This is an extended version of an interview first published in the November 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine